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Theater & Dance

Behind the Scenes of Broadway Backwards


An inside-look at the only annual Broadway event custom-made for the LGBT community.

The 11th Annual Broadway Backwards, the only annual Broadway event custom-made for the LGBT community, kicks off on March 21 at the Al Hirschfield Theater. Each year, the funds raised benefit Broadway Cares and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City. Creator and director Robert Bartley took us behind the sequined curtain for an inside look at the celebrated event.

Out: How did Broadway Backwards begin?

Robert Bartley: My partner, Danny Whitman, and I created it eleven years ago at The Center. We wanted to a fundraiser for The Center that involved the Broadway community and the gay community. Originally, I had thought about an all-male version of Hello, Dolly!, and I realized that was just nearly impossible to pull off. So, we opened it up to doing numerous songs reverse-gendered. That first year, we realized that the songs were actually doing something special, especially the songs with the gender in them. They were speaking to the gay audience, letting them listen to these songs in a new way, and they told their stories.

How do you decide what songs to include each year?

When an actor agrees to do the show, we'll suggest a list of songs that we think have a powerful message, or are just beloved theater songs, or are something that we can realize into more of a production number. Then, we see what strikes a chord with the actor. The actors take a big leap of faith because they are doing material that is completely foreign to them. The song has to be completely reinterpreted. It has to be set in a new key and re-orchestrated.

Because everyone volunteers their time, what is the rehearsal process like?

The production team starts in the fall, piecing together what we want to do, what theater we are going to be in, setting up schedules, and lining it up. We start casting it around New Year's. The dancers that do it year after year are some of the best on Broadway, and we've gotten to know them. We call them, and ask if they want to join us again. We start choreographing the numbers in January. There is also a costume crew and designer that joins us and starts designing the look of the show. A lighting designer comes in closer to the show. Then, about three weeks out, we start full-time rehearsals. We have a Broadway stage management team that organizes the schedule within an inch of its life because when you have all of these very successful people, they are all very busy. So, that's an art unto itself.

I like to try and rehearse the ensemble first, teach them the choreography, and get them really solid. Then, I usually bring in the star, teach them the number, and put it together, so that no one is ever really sitting around and waiting.

Wow. And in the end it truly looks amazing.

That's a testament to a lot of very passionate, professional people that are really wonderful. For example, our orchestrators. There's a dozen or more orchestrators that come in and they listen to the song, who's going to sing it, and then they set a key and do an arrangement. The weekend before the show we have an orchestra rehearsal, where the cast hears the orchestra for the very first time, and everyone makes last minute adjustments. I want to say that there are nearly 200 people throughout the year that work on this event to make it come together.

How do you ensure Broadway Backwards has broad appeal?

There is a little of a variety-show feel. We make sure that there are some fun numbers and ballads. There are some group numbers, a jazzy number, and more of a pop-rock number. Our audience is very diverse, and we want to strike a chord with everybody in the house. So, it's very important to us to keep it varied. It's also very neat because you get to see different aspects of different performers and what they can do. It's always surprising to us and the audience throughout the process.

I know you can't give anything away, but what can you tease out about next Monday's event?

Treat Williams. Is there a gay man out there who doesn't know who Treat Williams is? He did The Ritz, Hair, and several things like that. I will just say that what he's singing something that will be fondly thought of because it's connected to him as a person and his career.

We try to take from the person's career, and we try to make it special. It could be a different song from a show they did. So that's a recipe that we use quite often. That's certainly the case with Chita Rivera. We're pulling from our performer's illustrious careers.

This year's Broadway Backwards is set to include performances by Broadway legend and two-time Tony Award winner Rivera, plus Broadway favorites Nick Adams, Danielle Brooks, Tituss Burgess, Len Cariou, Andre De Shields, Nathan Lee Graham, Josh Grisetti, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Laura Michelle Kelly, Eddie Korbich, Beth Malone, Lesli Margherita, Karen Mason, Kenita R. Miller, Ken Page, Telly Leung, Brad Oscar, Krysta Rodriguez, Emily Skinner, Tony Sheldon, Ricky Ubeda, Treat Williams, Tony Yazbeck, and Broadway trio Apollo Link. For more information please visit

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